The Nato-backed Ukrainian summer offensive has made little impact on Russian defences. But beyond Ukraine’s borders, the war is creating instability across the world, argues Chris Bambery.
At the start of summer, the official narrative from Western politicians, media, academics and military pundits was that Ukraine is on course for victory and can retake Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
Nato supporters continue to claim victory is possible, even if it is no longer just around the corner. But post-Bakhmut, and in the midst of Ukraine’s ailing counteroffensive, Kyiv’s situation does not look so rosy.
Russia’s armed forces have proven to be neither brittle nor demoralized. Putin has successfully mobilized hundreds of thousands of additional troops, and Russian armaments have been highly effective. Western military experts who lauded the superior abilities and capacities of Ukraine’s armed forces now write reports about the adaptability, versatility and creativity of Russia’s soldiers and technicians.
It is now clear that the Ukrainian recapture of large tracts of territory in Kharkiv and Kherson in 2022 did not change the strategic situation in their favour. In a sense, it may even have benefited the Russians by forcing Moscow to shorten its defensive lines. The Russians had months to prepare for any offensive and are holding well prepared defence lines. Breaking through them would be an immensely difficult task. As in 1914-18, the balance of military technology and tactics seems to favour defensive fighting.
Within Ukraine there is evidence of war weariness – with large numbers leaving the country to avoid conscription. As often happens in war, there is evidence of behind-the-lines hedonism, moving President Zelensky to demand “those who are not fighting on the frontline must help fight. Not in bars, not in clubs, not by street racing or some kind of ostentatious consumption”.
He has launched a country-wide crackdown on corruption, centred around the recruitment effort. In recent weeks he has sacked every single head of regional military recruitment, implying a widespread network of graft. Misdirected aid, and bungs for leave from the front, have become a lucrative business among Ukraine’s midranking elites. This too is sapping morale.
According to Western estimates, Ukraine has lost more than 120,000 troops to death or wounds. The economy is wrecked, and Ukraine’s western sponsors are losing patience.
News headlines in the west continue to trumpet Ukrainian resolve, and the war aim of final and complete victory. But among experts, and those closer to power, there are growing numbers who question the official narrative.
Steven Myers, an Air Force veteran and adviser to two secretaries of State, laments that: “Strategically, this war was lost by both sides before it started. It will end in stalemate, which I now think was Putin’s intent from the get-go.”
He went on: “President Biden, NATO and (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelenskyy have trapped themselves in a Catch-22 of their own making, unable to deliver on unrealistic expectations they created.”
The apparent failure of the summer offensive, in which so much stock was placed, implies a strengthened Russian hand politically and strategically.
War studies academic Marina Miron notes: “From the Russian perspective, I think they’re a little bit closer to achieving their objectives because of the territory currently under their control.”
The defensive character of the war means that Russia merely needs to maintain control of the land it has occupied. Zelensky’s avowed aim of the recapture of all lands could, by comparison, become a liability: “Even if they hold onto it and don’t go any further, it will be very difficult for Ukraine to retake that land.”
“I don’t actually think that that’s ever going to be possible”, she added.
July’s NATO summit was high on rhetoric but low on what NATO was offering Ukraine. Beforehand, media reports predicted that Ukraine would be fast tracked for NATO membership. In fact, both the USA and Germany opposed this move.
Lily Lynch pointed out what Ukraine did get: “What Ukraine has been granted is something akin to the so-called ‘Israel model’: a combination of ‘arms sales, security commitments, and military training’. For critics, this was merely a disingenuous attempt to spin the provision of arms as something more lofty.”
US and NATO policy is to furnish Ukraine with a steady supply of arms which nonetheless falls short of what is needed for victory. Meanwhile, they also rule out peace negotiations. The stage is, therefore, set for a continued stalemate.
Global Competition Mounts
As I have written previously in Conter, the USA’s focus on the war in Ukraine and on the heightened Cold War with China in the South China Sea and the Pacific, means many sub-imperialisms, regional powers, have decided they can flex their muscles. The result? Heightened military tensions and conflicts.
Turkey attacks the Kurds, even those allied to the USA in the war against Islamic State; Nigeria threatens Niger with invasion backed up by France; Israel goes on the rampage in the occupied West Bank. Azerbaijan has blockaded the only route into the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh since December, resulting in shortages of food, medicines, and energy; Russia is committed to support the Armenians, and increasingly fosters allies in Africa and elsewhere. These are tinderboxes ready to blaze away at any moment – and there are more.
The increasing division of the world into rival military alliances things can spin out of control, just as they did in July and August 1914 when the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was gunned down by Serbs in Sarajevo. The increasing intricacy of finely balanced, internationalised alliances increases the threat of a conflict domino effect.
The development of the BRICS group, which draws together mind ranking powers like China, Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa, to now also incorporate Iran, Saudi Arabia and others from 2024, points to the continued decline of US influence. But this does not indicate the simple creation of a stable or harmonious ‘multipolar’ order, rather a period of increasing international competition.
As voices pointing out Ukraine is not winning the war grow in number, it is vital that the demand for peace talks are the political conclusion. The threat of global conflict sprawling out from Nato confrontation with Russia, is being demonstrated before our eyes.